I Got Lice at 28

My mom is very clean. Like, eat-off-floor, professional housewife clean.

We couldn’t have a dog, because dogs are dirty. We couldn’t wear shoes in the house, because shoes are dirty.  If I used the restroom while out to dinner with my family, my mother would start with the questions: “Was it clean? It was dirty, wasn’t it? Did you sit on the seat? You sure you didn’t sit on the seat?”

I felt like I was in a cop show, handcuffed to a chair in a windowless room and the detective was flashing a bright light in my face, smacking me around a bit, trying to get me to confess to a crime I didn’t commit.

“Did you put paper on the seat? Don’t lie to me, Giulia.”

Raised by such a clean mom, you can imagine my horror when I got lice. Not at sleep away camp, or from one of the kids at school. Nope — I got head lice when I was 28. TWENTY-EIGHT! Who the hell gets lice when they’re almost 30?

Well, apparently someone who sleeps at random friends’ apartments, or on the Fung Wah Bus. 

After getting engaged, I decided it was time to leave New York City (and my dreams), move to Boston, where my father owned an apartment, down the street from my parents and across from my old high school. Not long after this very “adult” decision to save money by living rent-free in the suburbs, I began going back to New York almost obsessively, where I’d sleep on the loveseats, futons and air mattresses of friends. I like to think that the lice came from my lifestyle and not from one of my sweet, generous friends specifically.

But however it happened, one week I found myself intensely scratching my head, assuming I had dry scalp. That same week, coincidentally, I had a doctor’s appointment for my annual check-up.  At the end of my visit, I casually mentioned that my scalp had been super itchy lately, and asked if there was a special shampoo I could use. My doctor took a look at my scalp and nonchalantly said, “Oh, it’s lice.”


Obviously, I started crying. Then my doctor, apparently in attempt to make me feel better (???), held a microscope up to my face and said, “Here, wanna see?” Looking back at me under the glass was a little monster straight out of a cartoon Raid commercial. Except this cartoon was in my hair: a real life plague of blood sucking, egg-laying and rapidly multiplying.

I figured I’d treat the itching and the guilt by peeling my skin off and jumping in a pool of acid. (Even writing this, I feel itchy and dirty.)

I knew what the real culprit was: God was punishing me for failing to grow up and accept that I was going to be somebody’s wife, and for still acting like an itinterant teenager. A reluctantly suburban bride-to-be, roaming aimlessly between two cities, mooching off my New York City rent-paying friends and living off the kindness of my parents.

I left the doctors office with a bottle of lice shampoo and a special comb. When I got to my apartment and found that my fiancé had already left for a business trip, I was relieved, as tonight would be devoted to combing and guilty weeping.

I tore off all my clothes and threw them away. I got in the shower as began to apply the shampoo which had the following warning on the bottle: Do not leave on for more than the recommended application time, doing so may cause seizures or death. Great! You mean I not only have lice but I might die tonight?! GOT IT, GOD.

I applied the shampoo and sat in the tub crying, looking for all the world like a scene out of a made-for-TV movie about meth addiction.

In the midst of my very special episode I heard a voice in my living room: “Giulia? You home?” It was my sister Elena stopping by to say hello.

“Elena!!!” I wailed. “Help me!”

My sister darted in. “What happened to you?”

I screamed, “I have lice!” and added gravely, “Don’t tell Mommy.” Yes. I still call my mother Mommy. There I was, feeling desperate to grow up, unready to grow up and terrified of my Italian mother.

My sister helped comb through my hair and pluck out lice. We washed all my clothing and linens and sprayed the apartment top to bottom with lice spray. Because she is the best sister in the world, she inspected me from scalp to pubes. (If you couldn’t tell by now, my sister is awesome.)

I woke up the next morning feeling cleansed, in multiple senses of the word. My sister and I were so thorough there was no chance in hell (and trust me, having lice is hell) that my plague was lingering around my apartment or crotch. No chance. But then, oh fuck, my head started to itch.

I had no choice. I knew what act of contrition was next: I had to shave my head and burn all of my possessions.

Or at least, tell my mom.

I showed up at my parents’ house with gloves, a fresh lice comb, and Elena for moral support. I knew if anyone could clean this kind of dirty, it was my mother.

Shockingly, she was almost as nonchalant as my doctor had been. ” Oh, bugs on the head? I remember! We had in Italy. Sit down.”

I took off my shirt and sat topless on a folding chair in the basement. I tried to give my mom the gloves and comb but she scoffed and these mere toys and went in like a champ, with her bare hands. Apparently the cleanest woman in the world needed to attack the enemy without armor. Hard. Core.

With each lice egg she pulled from my roots, she rejoiced with an “Aaaaaah!” and a slew of Italian swears. She almost seemed to be enjoying this, proud to use her special cleaning skills for such good cause: her daughter’s sanity, and sanitation.

Now that’s love.

After what felt like hours, she turned to my sister. “Scissors,” she said, the way a surgeon would ask for a scalpel. Then, she leaned over and whispered, “Don’t worry, I’m only going to cut a few little pieces to make sure those fucking bugs are all gone.” 

When I looked in the mirror, my hair didn’t look any different. My face, on the other hand, looked radically different.

I took a shower, thanked my Mommy, and felt very grown up.